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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Eric Schmitt-Mazen is professionally trained to bring smiles to kids’ faces every year as Santa Claus, but no amount of professional training prepared him for a visit he paid to a terminally ill child at a Tennessee hospital.

When Schmitt-Mazen’s not Santa, he is a mechanical engineer and president of Pack Seals & Engineering. He told the Knoxville News Sentinel that he had just gotten off work when he got a call from a nurse.

“She said there was a very sick 5-year-old boy who wanted to see Santa Claus,” Schmitt-Mazen said. “I told her, ‘OK, just let me change into my outfit.’ She said, ‘There isn’t time for that. Your Santa suspenders are good enough. Come right now.’”

He arrived at the hospital 15 minutes later and met the boy’s family. They boy’s mom gave Schmitt-Mazen a toy from the TV show PAW Patrol and asked him to present the gift to her son as Santa.

“I sized up the situation and told everyone, ‘If you think you’re going to lose it, please leave the room. If I see you crying, I’ll break down and can’t do my job,'” said Schmitt-Mazen.

The boy’s family watched teary-eyed from a hallway window.

“When I walked in, he was laying there, so weak it looked like he was ready to fall asleep. I sat down on his bed and asked, ‘Say, what’s this I hear about you’re gonna miss Christmas? There’s no way you can miss Christmas! Why, you’re my Number One elf!'” recalled Schmitt-Mazen.

Schmitt-Mazen said he barely managed to maintain his composure through the visit.

“He kinda sat up and gave me a big hug and asked one more question: ‘Santa, can you help me?’ recalled Schmitt-Mazen. “I wrapped my arms around him. Before I could say anything, he died right there. I let him stay, just kept hugging and holding on to him.”

It took several moments for the boy’s family to realize what happened.

“His mother ran in. She was screaming, ‘No, no, not yet!’ I handed her son back and left as fast as I could,” said Schmitt-Mazen. “I spent four years in the Army with the 75th Rangers… But I ran by the nurses’ station bawling my head off. I know nurses and doctors see things like that every day, but I don’t know how they can take it.’”

Schmitt-Mazen said he cried all the way home and considered hanging up his Santa suit for good afterwards. But after mustering the courage to work one more gig, he decided to continue working as Santa to bring those kids some joy.

Click here to read Schmitt-Mazen’s full story on from the Knoxville News Sentinel.